Sunday, March 30, 2008

opening-weekend review of *The Foreigner*

at Spokane Civic Theatre through April 20

What would we be like if only we could really let ourselves go? What secrets do other people harbor? What if we were really popular?

Larry Shue's 1983 farce with a heart, *The Foreigner,* combines the appeal of these questions with slapstick and verbal humor to create a perennial comedy. While Shue's play suffers from too much exposition and from hammering its moral of self-discovery too hard, it's receiving a Spokane Civic Theatre production (through April 20) that's diverting, sometimes dull, but mostly entertaining.

It's a fish-out-of-water story in which the fish decides to try things out up on dry land for a while. A shy Brit finds himself in a backwoods Georgia hunting lodge pretending that he speaks no English. (Discovering why he decides to do so - and how he maintains the ruse and then transforms and freshens it -- is most of the fun that Shue's having.)

This is a strong ensemble in which nearly all the actors are effective nearly all the time. As a slick preacher with a dark side, Jaylan Renz combines an ability to talk his way out of any sticky situation with the slithering movements of a snake oil salesman. As an ex-debutante, Kari Severns channels Jean Smart in *Designing Women,* alternating between comic consternation and vulnerability. Andrew Biviano gets beyond the Southern-dimwit-hick-with-a-heart stereotype, finding his way in Shue's script to justifiable resentment at others' condescension and some salt-of-the-earth cleverness. And even if it's a throwback, Troy Heppner's characterization of "Froggy" LeSueur -- British military, stiff upper lip but mischievous -- is amusing for the way Heppner pulls off comic slow burns of consternation and then rebounds with cleverness and good cheer.

As the heavy, Will Gilman is effective at throwing his weight around and voicing repulsive attitudes, though he needs to erase that bemused expression when his Owen Musser character becomes the butt of other people's jokes. As the little old lady who runs the hunting lodge (and has apparently never been outside it, so enthralled is she with the prospect of a real, live foreigner), however, Kathie Doyle-Lipe overdoes the *Hee-Haw* mannerisms. Betty's various enthusiasms don't need so much head-waggling.

In the title role, Joe Vander Weil is delightful in displaying the giddiness of a reticent man finally figuring out this business of "acquiring a personality." He should work on the setup, however: Despite the bowtie and conservative duds, Vander Weil is never really convincing as a man so consumed with shyness and low self-esteem that he'd agree to put himself in the position of eavesdropper and freak. And some of Charlie's second-act newfound fluency in English seems too polished. But Vander Weil's expressive face, gangly dancing and histrionic babbling in a made-up language create several laugh-out-loud, affecting sequences. Charlie has such good (if unexpressed) emotions that we're rooting for him, and Vander Weil's confused, reticent expressions over on the sidelines (when he's compelled into silent-eavesdropper mode) are a joy to watch. While he stepped on about three laugh lines during the first act on Saturday night, Vander Weil and the cast will learn over the course of the run where the chortles reliably come, making that problem likely go away.

Director Wes Dietrick's casting and the costumes of Susan Berger and Jan Wanless make for comic contrasts: military khakis vs. Argyle sweaters, dingy overalls vs. tweed jackets, early '80s neon-print dresses with big shoulders vs. Grandma's floor-length wool skirts; fat/skinny, tall/short, Mutt/Jeff. Dietrick keeps traffic moving generally well, though in a couple of sequences (gather 'round for storytelling, hide in the dark cowering as the bad guys advance) in which groupings were arrived at by rote, too automatically.

Shue created a well-made play, so pay attention to the professions, props and personalities introduced in the early going, because they're sure to pop back up again. There are several very funny sequences involving pink plastic cups, foreign-language instruction and an allusion to the melting of the Wicked Witch in *Oz.*

Shue's farce, moreover isn't divorced from reality. With personal sadness and racist greed co-existing alongside silly improvised dancing, *The Foreigner* shows us ugliness and shows us joy. Dietrick's production allows all of that room for expression. It may be overlong for comedy and it may miss some of its laugh lines while straining too hard to underscore others, but the Civic's *Foreigner* is amusing and even hilarious often enough to remind playgoers of why Shue's farce has become a staple of American playhouses in the last quarter-century.


At March 31, 2008 10:50 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Bobo,

I have never before responded to your blog, but I have read it upon occasion when I can’t wait to see how you viewed a play I loved. I wonder with this play if we actually saw the same show, since I was there on Saturday also. I found it completely entertaining with several showstoppers where the actors had to wait for the audience to stop laughing. I must say that I find your comments in this review to be confusing and at times contradictory.

But that is not why I am writing to you today. I am a patron of the theater and must wholeheartedly disagree with your critique of the performance of Ms. Doyle-Lipe. She is my friends and my favorite character in the play and your criticism, in our humble opinion, is completely unfounded. Her energy is engaging, her performance touching and I can only wish that I had a grandmother with her spunk and enthusiasm. I remember watching Hee Haw as a child and I find absolutely no similarities between that show and Ms. Doyle-Lipe’s performance. Perhaps you mistake her consummate ability as an actor to change her body mannerisms right down to the way she walked the stage for “head-waggling” – whatever you mean by that since I didn’t see anything of the sort. I must say I found Ms. Doyle-Lipe’s Betty to be unlike any other character I have ever seen her perform and I must commend her.

If Ms. Doyle-Lipe ever reads this I wish to express my thanks to her for giving me a great show that I will not forget! Blasney-blasney!

At April 02, 2008 10:01 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Thanks for writing. You've raised some interesting issues, not least of which is that of course people who attend the same performance may have very different opinions of what they just witnessed.
Some actors, like Kathie, appear on local stages quite a bit. That can put reviewers in a bit of a bind.
Like everyone, Kathie has recognizable mannerisms; so do we all. Over the years, Bobo has grown used to them. How exactly does a reviewer approach them with an open mind?
I don't mean to pick on just Kathie. I was fortunate enough to play a small role in *Guys and Dolls* at the Civic back in about 2003 or so, and it was a real pleasure to watch Kathie night after night as Miss Adelaide in her scenes with Jerry Sciarrio as Nathan Detroit. Those two were so masterful, so consistently good, in those roles that it was a pleasure then to watch them then and a pleasure now to recall them. Kathie is immensely talented; audiences love her. She can sing and act and dance (and choreograph others in dancing). She's just naturally funny, and audiences love her, and I think she's just a wonderful person.

But I didn't think she was good in this particular show.
To return to the question of how to evaluate performances from actors that I often see: The criteria have to be, I think, how well does the actor in question diverge from his or her usual shtick tonight, and/or how well do their usual stage tricks fit the character that they're playing tonight?
Personalities do the same thing over and over onstage (or in movies): John Wayne was a personality.
Actors are chameleons, different in almost every role: Laurence Olivier and Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman are actors.

Not to hold Kathie (or any other local actor) to impossibly high standards, but: The challenge is to find a distinct way to embody distinct characters, over and over through the years.
If you're going to appear onstage four times a year, you'd better bring four different characterizations, or else you're just treading artistic water.

Kathie was quieter, angrier, more closed-in, more sarcastic in her very good performance as the mother (Nat?) in *Rabbit Hole* at ARt. A very different characterization; she really showed her range.

In *The Foreigner,* in my opinion, her over-acting was distracting. For what it's worth, I wrote "Hee Haw" in my notes five mintues after she appeared onstage. That Roy guy on that horrid show, who was always a-pickin' and a-grinnin'? I thought Kathie's choices veered too much in that direction.
I thought one of her choices was exactly right: hugging the wooden pillar to enact how much she loved whoever it was (her dead husband? I forget). But it was a nice way to embody the lines.
The nadir, I thought, came when Catherine discovers that this strange man has overheard her confess a big secret, and she's upset, and Charlie the Foreigner is upset (because now trapped in his unwilling role), and the preacher doesn't want his girlfriend upset, and everyone has a real psychological stake in what's about to happen, and Kathie is between the two opposing sides, holding off Catherine and pushing back Charlie, and back one way and back the other, with her head shaking and yes, waggling, and her hands patting first one side and then the other, basically making herself the central focus and playing up the exaggerated Lucille Ball mannerisms so much that her goofiness drained any serious import (there IS at least a little of that, even in this farce) right out of the scene.
Kicked me right out of the scene. Didn't serve it. Funny in another context, maybe, but, in my opinion, overdone and exaggerated for this particular scene.

Of course, I could be wrong.
Betty Meeks faces some serious threats: condemned property, bad guys gathering in the darkness outside her lodge. In my view, a more rounded characterization would find the real anxieties of that woman, not just her comic goggling and head-waggling.

So I've managed to alienate you, Kathie, and perhaps the other actors who regularly appear on Spokane stages.
But then every time actors go into rehearsal, they are faced with the task of divesting themselves of themselves and putting on the new suit of clothes that a new character brings as baggage. For actors who act regularly, that's an increasing challenge and opportunity. It's not that I thought Kathie was awful; far from it. She was OK. But she could have been better.
(Which, of course, you could say about anyone's performance anytime. We're all just trying to create good theater.)

At April 10, 2008 10:55 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like someone is a little jealous.....


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